Arrow-right Camera

Outdoors blog

Tue., May 24, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

Lead for hunting, fishing getting heavily criticized

HUNTING/FISHING -- Editorials by leaders in the hunting and fishing community, findings from several new studies, and action by the U.S. military are prompting conservation groups to press Congress to re-evaluate proposed legislation that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating lead in ammunition used for hunting.

The American Bird Conservancy compiled the following list of recent endorsements, editorials and research summaries to consider.

Paul Hansen, former executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America, began his editorial in the Aspen Times by saying: It is time for those of us who hunt to quit using outdated lead bullets and start moving toward high-tech copper bullets—even if they are more expensive. Lead bullets are bad for everyone: They contaminate the meat we bring home as well as the gut piles we leave behind, and they also poison any scavengers that consume the contaminated meat.”

Ted Williams, editor of Fly Rod and Reel Online, said in Audubon Magazine that:”Despite cheap available alternatives most American sportsmen are still using lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Because of this, some of our most majestic birds, from eagles to loons to condors pay a terrible price.”

In addition, one of the world’s leading newspapers, the New York Times, has also called for an end to lead ammunition use in hunting. A May 16, 2011 editorial states: “Banning lead poses no threat to hunters or fishermen. It is a way of making sure they kill only the prey they seek without inadvertently killing other creatures as well.”

“There are many in the hunting and fishing community that understand and support the need to rid the environment of lead ammunition – and we are delighted to see them stepping forward and being heard. They understand that this is an anti-lead issue, not an anti-hunting issue, and the more we can get that message across the better. We support hunting and fishing taking place as they always have, but just lead free,” said George Fenwick, President of ABC.

Four new university studies further documenting lead poisoning of non-target wildlife have also been published or announced. Following is a summary of those recent studies:

  1. Scientists at the University of California-Santa Cruz, the University of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service conducted a study that points to lead ammunition as a primary factor limiting the survival and recovery of one of the country’s most imperiled birds, the California Condor. This peer-reviewed study, announced at the Society of Toxicology’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, is especially important because not only does it cite lead as a major factor in condor deaths, but it identifies lead ammunition specifically as the culprit. The results demonstrate that about 90% of free-flying condors have been exposed to lead-based ammunition. The study also found that between 2004-2009, about 35% of free-flying condors in California were chronically exposed to lead levels well-known to be toxic.
  2. Another peer-reviewed study by the University of California, University of Idaho, and California Department of Fish and Game, published online on April 6, 2011 in the Public Library of Science, also connected lead ammunition with lead poisoning of birds. The study found that blood-lead concentrations in Golden Eagles and Turkey Vultures declined significantly following a ban on lead ammunition in parts of California.
  3. Another peer-reviewed study by the University of California, published online in April 2011 in the Public Library of Science, compared blood-lead concentration in Turkey Vultures within and outside of the deer hunting season, and in areas with varying wild pig hunting intensity. Lead exposure in Turkey Vultures was found to be significantly higher during the deer hunting season compared to the off-season, and blood lead concentration was positively correlated with increasing wild pig hunting intensity. The results provide evidence that spent lead ammunition in carrion poses a significant risk of lead exposure to scavengers.
  4.  A fourth study by the University of Glasgow and the Grange Wildlife Centre in England found that Mute Swans with moderate blood lead levels suffered an increased risk of collision with power lines and other overhead cables.

These studies complement a burgeoning body of hundreds of peer-reviewed, scientific articles supporting the fact that lead is toxic to wildlife.

Another development impacting the continued use of lead ammunition is a decision by the U.S. Army to move to a lead-free 5.56mm bullet. Lt. Col. Jeff Woods, the Army's small caliber Ammunition Product Manager, was effusive in his praise of its performance in the May issue of "There's nothing out there right now that can perform like this round on this wide a range of targets. This is a clear case where making something environmentally friendly works for us," he said.

Army officials said the new ammunition improved hard-target capability and provided more dependable, consistent performance at all distances, as well as improved accuracy, reduced muzzle flash, and increased velocity.

“Clearly, the military praise of the performance of this lead-free ammunition speaks for itself. I doubt that there are any more knowledgeable people when it comes to understanding and appreciating ammunition performance, than the military. The myth that lead-free ammunition doesn’t perform has been exposed, and hunters can use non-toxic ammunition with confidence that it will meet their high standards,” Fenwick said.

Ironically, these developments come at a time when a House Bill – HR 1558 – and a Senate Bill – S.838.IS – have been introduced that would prohibit the federal agency best positioned to regulate the use of lead in ammunition – the EPA – from doing so.

“It would be my hope that as this new information is considered, our decision-makers would agree that the evidence and arguments for going to lead-free hunting ammunition are firmly and scientifically well-grounded on all fronts. Outdoor leaders are beginning to concur with this. The science community has published almost 500 studies documenting the dangers of lead ammunition. The military has found a new, lead-free bullet to be superior. It is hard to imagine a more convincing case for going lead-free than we are seeing,” Fenwick said.

Lead is a highly toxic substance that is dangerous to wildlife even at low levels. Exposure can cause a range of health effects, from loss of coordination and nerve damage to acute poisoning and death. Long-term effects can include mental retardation, reduced reproduction, and damage to neurological development.

Several studies of various species of birds suggest that up to 10 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning in the United States, including Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Loons, Trumpeter Swans, and doves. This occurs when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead bullet fragments, or pick up and eat spent lead shot pellets or lost fishing weights, mistaking them for food or grit. Some animals die within days, while others suffer for years from lead’s debilitating effects.

Lead ammunition also poses health risks to people. Lead bullets fragment on impact into minute particles, spreading throughout game meat that people eat. X-ray studies show that hundreds of dust-sized lead particles can contaminate meat more than a foot and a half away from the bullet track. A recent study found that up to 87% of game killed by lead ammunition contains unsafe levels of lead when consumed by pregnant women or children. Nearly ten million hunters, their families, and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations may be at risk. 

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus
« Back to Outdoors blog
Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

Follow Rich online: